‘Futures’ is an umbrella term for a set of tools used to analyse emerging trends, anticipate their impact and build stories about possible futures
The further we look into the future the greater uncertainty there is. As an innovation method, futurescoping therefore aims to build understanding about the forces shaping the future, what surprises could be on the horizon and inform what actions could be taken today to deal with them. Futures methods can be used across the public, private and social sector.
Futures as an innovation method
Typically starting with horizon (or environment) scanning, both qualitative and quantitative research methods are used to spot signals of change, track trends and make projections.
Once this data and information has been gathered, these insights are then organised in informative and creative ways to help people imagine different possible futures.
These futures can be brought to life through the development of future scenarios, by telling stories through science fiction and personas, and even creating objects from the future using speculative design methods.
Our work on futures
Nesta’s use of futures methods started to gain momentum from 2012 onwards, when our work was focused on emerging technologies and new frontiers in science.
In 2013 we published Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow, a modest defence of futurology, making the case for futures as a valuable means of interrogating change and innovation. For a number of years, we also ran an event series called 'Hot Topics’ which brought together academics, technologists, designers, and policymakers in a bid to cut through the hype and look ahead to the impact of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs.
Nesta has commonly used futures methods as a route into exploring topics or technologies which have later gone on to become increasingly important to our work. This is particularly the case with our work on Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and the impact of automation on the workforce.
We have also developed and experimented with novel methods. For example, in 2017, we used our data science capabilities to experiment with quantitative methods and show how employment is likely to change in the future. The results and the projected impact on skills was collated in a report titled Employment 2030.
Equally, we use data-mapping as a tool for identifying early signals of change and the growth in new technologies and networks. This has played an important role in our Next Generation Internet project which focuses on creating a more inclusive web by 2025.
Crucially, our application of futures methods is not limited to technology. We are committed to understanding what methods can be used to open up conversations about the future with wider groups of people. We believe professional futurists, technologists, scientists and policymakers also need to communicate across professional silos and engage the wider public in a more inclusive debate about the future.
Democratising conversations about the future in this way is one of the major goals behind Nesta’s flagship public-facing event - FutureFest. This weekend festival brings possible futures to life for our stakeholders and the wider public through a mix of talks and interactive installations. Since the first FutureFest in 2013, we have reached an estimated 9,000 people with three editions of the festival.
Arts and Culture Horizon Scan
As the Arts Council England prepared to develop a new ten-year strategy to 2030, they commissioned Nesta to conduct a rapid horizon scan of the operating climate for arts and cultural organisations. In the 2018 paper Experimental Culture we reviewed data on workforce, future audiences, new technologies and business models and interviewed thought leaders in the field to explore the challenges and opportunities of the next decade for the sector.
Next Generation Internet
Nesta leads EU Engineroom, a project tasked with setting the research and funding agenda for the Next Generation Internet project, the European Commission’s ambitious new flagship programme seeking to build a more inclusive, democratic and resilient future internet. Engineroom sets out a radical future vision for what an internet underpinned by European values could look like, and uses cutting edge data-driven methodologies to map the emerging technologies and frameworks which should underpin such an internet.
Over the past six years Nesta has worked with partners such as the V&A and Arup on a range of futures workshops which integrate experimental methods such as speculative design, storytelling and performance. See, for example, a workshop to generate profiles of future Londoners, narratives about the rise of nanosatellites and possible futures for people-powered medical devices.
This Nesta project set out to explore what a health system could look like in 2030 if new knowledge was used differently and more people played a role in managing health. In addition to presenting analysis, the report integrated stories and vignettes to prompt a more expansive discussion about what we want for the future of healthcare.
In 2017 Nesta published a major study on the Future of Skills and Jobs which was underpinned by an innovative methodology which combined historical jobs and trends analysis, qualitative foresight workshops and quantitative machine learning techniques in a novel way to predict which skills and jobs will be in higher demand in the future. The study’s findings challenged the alarmism that holds back technology adoption, innovation and growth.
Since 2013 Nesta’s FutureFest has taken over 9000 people on a multi-sensory journey to touch, feel, debate, taste and experience the future. The interdisciplinary line-up of speakers has included Edward Snowden, Vivienne Westwood, Brian Eno and Lord Martin Rees. We have also teamed up with businesses, research bodies, artists, communities, design studios and universities to provide a platform for installations and immersive experiences like ‘Neurosis’ (a neurological thrill ride) and the Fertility Shop of the Future.